This year’s is the fourth annual LMBR report; the data used in the analysis was provided by data partner Places Scout. Those interested in the full results can check out the report here. In this article, I’ll highlight just a few of the key takeaways for multi-location marketers.
The ranking criteria that matters most for the current discussion is relevance. In offering product photos to users searching for products, Google is both declaring and emphasizing that this business has offerings relevant to the searcher’s stated need.
Google appears to think of ranking in terms of zones, where the first zone features the best possible mix of proximity, relevance, and prominence, and the second zone begins to sacrifice either proximity, or relevance, or both, but is less likely to sacrifice prominence. In more human terms, this means that Google wants to show us the best options for a query, and when it runs of inventory, it brings in results that are farther away or that might offer a reasonable alternative.
Claire Carlile, in a recent post on visual search that contains useful tips for local businesses, shows us that Google is now making it possible to conduct a search that starts and ends with images. Her example search is conducted using Google Lens, where an image of a Sony headphones package is the “query” that produces a local pack result replete with its own images. This may or may not be the future of search, but it’s highly representative of the visual-first orientation that Google is embracing to a growing degree.
With businesses closing temporarily due to government mandate, or changing their offerings or hours significantly in response to the pandemic, consumers turned to local search too with a heightened, even sometimes critical need to access the latest information. This heightened demand has not disappeared.
Nextdoor is the latest local platform to publish what it calls a Transparency Report, designed to offer information to the public about efforts made to maintain an online community that is free from problematic content. In Nextdoor’s case, the focus is on reducing incidents of hate speech and incivility in order to promote healthy community interaction.
In one of the strongest signs yet of long-term changes in consumer behavior following the pandemic, food delivery services are continuing to achieve record growth even as consumers move closer to pre-pandemic levels of activity. The new era of delivery reached a milestone this month when Uber announced that delivery revenue from Uber Eats in 2021 outpaced revenue from ridesharing, Uber’s original raison d’être.
Recent developments from the FTC mark a significant moment in the history of online review management. Practices such as review gating have been relatively widespread in the industry for years, despite warnings such as this Help Center update published by Google in 2018: “Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”
As 2021 stretched on, with its vaccine controversies and mutating variants, we realized we were really just living through an indefinite phase in the middle of a long pandemic. Consumer habits, rather than getting back to normal, were settling in to a battle-weary pattern of compromise. It seemed unlikely that local search data would tell us much we didn’t already know. But it turns out the data tells a somewhat encouraging story.
I wanted to look in particular at search engines other than Google and their treatment of local search. I was intrigued by the recent announcements that Bing was making forays into product inventory as a component of local search as well as the launch of Bing Travel, a Google Travel competitor but with a very different approach to destination-based search and discovery. Similarly, recent news about the exponential growth of Brave and DuckDuckGo in our era of privacy impelled me to find out more about their handling of local results.
Figuring out what type of Local Guides are leaving reviews, and what kind of reviews they are leaving, matters for a few reasons. First, Local Guides are responsible for writing more reviews of local businesses than any other group on the internet. Second, Local Guides write reviews under circumstances that make them different from ordinary consumers: They are self-selected volunteers who get rewarded, albeit in a non-monetary fashion, for their contributions. Fairly or not, they are often thought of as biased and their contributions as less valuable, merely “written for points.” Third, the true characteristics of Local Guides are not well known, because they have not yet been subject to this type of study.
Local Guides write most of the reviews on Google today — about 62% of all reviews, in fact. In the restaurant category, the dominance of Local Guides is even greater, with Local Guides writing about 69% of all reviews.
Three of the most notable trends — the ever-increasing importance of native Google My Business (now Google Business Profile) factors and, in particular, of reviews, as well as the diminished impact of citation building — are reinforced this year, with Google profile optimization accounting for 36% of local ranking, up from 33% last year, and reviews inching up from 16% to 17%, while citations continue at 7%, down significantly in importance compared to their prominent role in earlier years.
The GMB name change brings with it a fair degree of uncertainty. Google may be retaining, for instance, the model of an API that helps partners manage listings for both SMBs and larger brands, but if the company is simultaneously building out a snazzy new interface for those same multi-location brands to manage Google profiles on their own, does this fact represent an existential threat to listing management companies?
The initial launch of the GMB API in late 2015 allowed partners to maintain listings in near-real-time and at a much greater scale than was possible before. Now we’re in the midst of another sea change. Since the beginning of 2021, the API has been undergoing a complete overhaul from the ground up, a change that, once completed, will leave us with a totally different architecture that is more flexible and capable of much quicker iteration. This means, in all likelihood, that Google My Business as it is used by partners and the businesses who work with them will be able to move faster to fix issues and release new features.
In this third of four installments in my series on recent and ongoing trends in local search, I want to focus on signs that Google’s local platform — comprising Google My Business, Google Maps, and the local component of Google Search — has become, under our noses, a massive social network. Google has achieved this status not through traditional methods of connecting users to each other, but by allowing and encouraging users to share their experiences, questions, and opinions about local businesses in a variety of forms and at a massive scale.
This is the second in a series of four articles covering the themes behind many of Google’s recent local search feature releases and interface updates. In the first installment, I discussed Google’s increasingly personalized or customized search results, marked by content pulled from GMB profiles, the business website, and Google users, and matched to specific queries so that each SERP is unique. In this second installment, I’ll be talking too about interfaces that differ according to what you’re searching for, but in this case the differences are verticalized.
Though it’s not always easy to find the common threads in Google’s complex evolution of the local search consumer experience, some themes do stand out, such as the drive toward increasingly personalized search results, which I’ll be covering in this initial entry in the series. Fortunately for marketers, personalization, along with the other themes I’ll cover, offers numerous opportunities to outpace the competition and convert more searchers into buyers. A better understanding of these emerging trends will help marketers prioritize their efforts.
This has been the most active year in the history of local search when it comes to the introduction of new features. Google recently announced that it had made nearly 250 updates to Google Maps since the start of the pandemic, and just about every other local publisher, including Yelp, Bing, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, and even Apple Maps, has been busy.
As we near the end of this unusual year, I thought it would be useful to take stock of these changes and note the ones that are the most significant.